How Do You Handle the Stress of College?

Published: Friday, 24 July 2015 Written by Dawn Marcotte


(this is #4 in a series)

College students have a lot to deal with. Competing priorities, organizing schoolwork, often working a job at the same time and social demands of friends can all cause stress. For autistic students the standard coping mechanisms may not be enough to relieve this new level of stress. When asked the question, "How do you handle stress?" many autistic students responded with some variation of

"Not Well"

Types of Stress

After reviewing the responses to my recent survey of almost 60 autistic college students one item is very clear - different triggers for stress require different responses.

Environmental triggers such as sensory inputs of too much light or sound can be addressed with headphones or going somewhere else. One student remarked,

"I have sound muffling headphones that I keep in my bag with me constantly."

These types of sensory triggers can be planned for and with enough preparation managed from one day to the next.

Having headphones for sound, sunglasses for light, arriving early to choose the 'best' seat and choosing study locations carefully can all minimize sensory overloads. Some students have accommodations to allow them to leave the classroom when they are overwhelmed. One student advises,

"The most important factor in reducing stress and managing it is paying attention to sensory needs."

Other students struggle with stress from the social aspects of college:

"I often find myself feeling stressed by social situations and expectations of others."

This kind of stress is more difficult to deal with, but it is possible.

"This is a skill I've developed with age and with finding a therapist who was willing to focus on my need for coping tools, not on extinguishing my autistic behaviors."


Do you want a pdf copy of all of the responses? Click here.


Common Coping Methods

The single most common coping method is stimming. One student suggested,

"Fight the urge to suppress your stereotypically autistic behavior. It is absorbing huge amounts of your energy and may be causing you more stress than you realize."

Other coping options include:

  • Listening to music
  • Deep pressure
  • Exercise
  • Spending time outside
  • Spending time alone

Other students emphasized the importance of taking care of themselves.

"I take a lot of breaks and make sure that I'm taking care of myself, like eating and wearing clean clothes. I also make sure that my environment is as sensory-friendly as it can be and I let myself do things that make me feel better."

I may go home and go to sleep immediately after a stressful day."

One student pointed out an important aspect of college:

"You will never have a more frequent free access to counseling outside of college so take advantage of it. Go as often as possible. Go to group therapy even though it's hard."

This desire for counseling was echoed by other students who attend regular therapy sessions. Having someone to listen to complaints and offer advice seems to help many students.


It is clear that each student needs to develop their own coping methods. Several students mentioned things like:

  • Pets
  • Spending time with family
  • Spending time with a close friend
  • Watching You Tube
  • Writing
  • Meditation/ Relaxation techniques

Students who develop methods to avoid meltdowns seem to manage stress more effectively.

"Most of my stress is caused by getting overwhelmed. I try to preempt meltdowns by organizing my thoughts."

This highlights the importance of building executive function skills such as organization and prioritization. Students who either have these skills or have support in place to help with them seem to have less stress to begin with.

It is vital for students to start practicing coping methods before college.

Planning ahead for sensory stimulation as well as social stresses can help reduce stress because students don't have to try and problem solve in the moment they are becoming overwhelmed.

Understand that stress will happen and not having unrealistic expectations is also key.

The most important aspect of dealing with stress applies to everyone - no matter who you are or where you are:

Get Enough Sleep and Take Care of Yourself


Do you want to see all of the responses?  Click below.


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